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For refugees, actions speak louder than words

Syria. The Mediterranean. The Andaman Sea. Yet again, the plight of refugees features prominently in news headlines. Images of boat-loads of individuals seeking asylum or masses of humanity surviving in camps, like Za’atari in Jordan, have led to calls for more to be done to respond to the plight of refugees. These calls will likely intensify as we get closer to 20 June, World Refugee Day, when groups in more than 100 countries will host events and issue reports to increase awareness about the needs of refugees and to mobilize a more effective response.

But this is not the first World Refugee Day, and the crises we see today are not the first refugee crises. Indeed, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was created by the Member States of the United Nations in 1950 with a mandate to ensure the protection of refugees and find a solution to their plight. For more than 60 years, this UN agency has worked with governments and other partners to try to respond to the needs of refugees. Today, UNHCR works in 123 countries around the world to help refugees, the internally displaced and stateless persons. It is a massive task.

One way that UNHCR and states try to respond to particular challenges faced by the forcibly displaced is to develop new policies. Many of these policies are global as they are meant to guide the actions of UNHCR and states around the world. In recent years, for example, global policies have been adopted on promoting alternatives to refugee camps, mainstreaming issues of age, gender, and diversity into UNHCR’s activities, promoting protection for refugees in urban areas, responding to the needs of refugees with disabilities, and encouraging solutions for protracted refugee situations. The announcement of each new policy brings with it considerable hope that at least one challenge faced by refugees can, and will, be resolved. This hope may explain why UNHCR, governments and other groups invest considerable time and resources in the policy-making process.

But do these policies make a difference? Too often, they do not. Despite agreement on a policy to respond to protracted refugee situations, two-thirds of the world’s refugees still spend five or more years in exile, and the average duration of a refugee situation is approaching 20 years. Despite agreement on a policy to pursue alternatives to camps, a significant number of refugee-hosting states require refugees to remain in closed camps, denied the right to support themselves and their families through paid work and self-reliance. And despite the existence of a policy since 1985 on the need to rescue asylum-seekers in distress at sea, thousands of people continue to perish in the Mediterranean in their pursuit of asylum in Europe.

How do we understand the apparent gap between the claims of these global policies and the realities for refugees today? This question has motivated a new research focus on the making, implementation and evaluation of global refugee policy. A more critical and systematic engagement with the global refugee policy process reveals the range of factors and interest that guide the making of policy and often limit its implementation. Indeed, our understanding of the global refugee policy process can borrow many lessons from the broader study of global public policy, and its understanding of the tensions and struggles inherent in so many efforts to make global policies and implement these policies in regional, national, and local contexts.

For example, the case of negotiating a global policy on children at risk shows how the making of policy is not always a technical and consensual process, but can be a highly contested and political. Likewise, the implementation of global policies in local contexts is far from inevitable, but may be limited and frustrated by domestic politics in refugee-hosting countries, like Tanzania, or the influence of actors in local contexts that are not bound by global policies, as seen in Southern Africa.

At the same time, however, a more careful understanding of global refugee policy may identify those instances when global policies do matter, especially where they can place limits on the otherwise restrictive policies and practices of states. For example, the standards of global policy have arguably been used to challenge the non-entrée policies of European states and promote refugee protection standards in the Asia-Pacific region.

Many of these themes were further explored in a recent seminar series at the Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford. Presentations considered the meaning of global refugee policy, the process by which certain global policies, such as UNHCR’s policy on urban refugees, may be changed, how the views of those outside the formal policy process may influence the development of new policy, and the case of global policy on internal displacement highlights the tensions and complexities of the policy process itself.

Together, this work encourages us to think more critically and systematically about the process by which global refugee policy is made, and the interests and factors that affect its implementation. These policies claim to be able to address the many problems faced by refugees today, yet they so often fall short on this promise. We need to develop a better understanding of why this happens and how the words of global refugee policy can be more predictably translated into action.

On World Refugee Day, and every day, actions to help the world’s refugees will speak louder than words.

Headline image credit: World Concept. CC0 via Pixabay

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